The swimming pool: 5 lessons for effective giving

It was a huge swimming pool, beautifully designed, and it seemed like any child’s dream for a backyard adventure. The only problem? This pool was in a struggling community in Latin America.

While I was traveling last year, I spoke with the Director of a ministry who told me about a gift that has become legendary in his community. The story goes that a very generous person traveled to a Latin American country to visit a children’s home and see the ministry there. The visitor was extremely moved by the children, the needs, and the opportunities to help. This visitor thought that the children would love a pool just like the one his children swam in back at home. So, he wrote a big check, and they built a swimming pool.

There was a lot of initial excitement about the pool. It was finished and opened up with a big celebration thanking the donor, but then the donor went home. The director tried to add in a new curriculum to teach the kids to swim. But most of the children had never seen a swimming pool. It was fun at first, but the time it took to learn to swim made it laborious, and only a few of the children fully participated.

A couple years later, the children’s home was facing some financial difficulties. Pretty soon, the director was forced by circumstances to decide if he would pay for the chemicals needed to keep up the pool or if he would buy other needed items (like basic school supplies, medicine and food). The pool chemicals fell further and further down on the priority list until the pool was finally closed for a season, and then another, and then another. The big, dark hole in the ground became a safety hazard, and eventually the organization had to prioritize the money to build a safety fence around it. The pool remained a massive, empty concrete hole.

The donor had such good intentions! But the way this played out was obviously not what he had intended. The donor and the director were both dealing with cultural and socioeconomic dynamics that made this exchange far more complicated than what they expected.

5 things we learn from the swimming pool?

This situation is not an anomaly. I have seen this happen in different countries all over the world. What can we learn about giving from the swimming pool? It actually makes a great case study. Here are five lessons we can learn:

1. Lead with questions, not ideas – When a donor walks in to talk with nonprofit or ministry leaders, it’s easy for their voice to become the loudest one in the room. A donor may be intending to just brainstorm ideas, but it is easy for those ideas to be heard as a potential donation. Many of the givers that I know balk at this dynamic, and they don’t intend for their voices to be that influential – but it is the reality when money is involved.

The most astute givers I know have figured out how to compensate for that dynamic and lean into others who can help as well. They ask questions and they hold back on making any suggestions until long after the relationship is firmly established. The questions that I have found to be most influential are ones like the following:

  • “Where are you seeing the greatest impact?”
  • “What are your biggest challenges?”
  • “What changes do you want to make?”
  • “What dreams do you have and what plans have you put in place?”

2. Listen to what people are saying (and what they are not saying) – It is hard to think of a skill that is more essential in strategic philanthropy than good listening. It’s critical to listen for enthusiastic or confident responses versus hesitations or avoidance. In many cultures, listening is the most important part of any negotiation and the time spent listening builds trust and rapport.

3. Determine if there is enough buy-in from key constituents – There is a key difference between an idea that is beneficial because it is being funded and an idea that is beneficial because it is what the organization wants and needs. True buy-in comes from the leaders of the organization knowing that a gift is going to help them accomplish key goals and move their mission forward. The ultimate test of buy-in is when the constituents talk about an idea as their own. You can also see buy-in if an organization is putting in their own money for the project or if they’re willing to raise additional funds to make it happen.

4. Determine if the resources are sufficient and can be sustained – It is essential to evaluate if a new idea or a designated gift will have ongoing expenses or financial demands that need to be met by the organization. General maintenance may seem insignificant, but even simple items like pool chemicals can become daunting when resources are sparse.

5. Assess the long-term plan and how it fits it into the overall vision/mission of the organization – Some donors are excited to dive in to understand the long-term plans of an organization, but others prefer to work with an advisor who can do that work as a neutral third party. Whatever your strategy, it is important to assure that your donation enhances the long-term plans and that it doesn’t take the ministry off course.

While this story about the swimming pool is not a rare situation, I enjoyed seeing the unique twist to this one. Many years later, another donor came along and asked why there was a massive, dirty, empty structure that looked like it used to be a pool.

The story was told once again. But this time, the conversation took a different turn. There were better questions. There was more listening. There was more honest conversation about long-term planning. Today, that pool is a tilapia pond. There is full ownership by the ministry, it is part of their ongoing model, and the plans are in place for continued maintenance. That tilapia pond is a sustainable funding source for the ministry, and it is a beautiful example of strategic giving.

Even a swimming pool can have a second chance.

*Dick Anderson, Director of ORPHANetwork, was a key influence in talking through this story with me. As Dick warns, “If there is money connected to an idea, it is always the greatest idea in the world.” I am grateful for Dick and the non-profit leaders who work hard to fight through those dynamics and to help us create meaningful and lasting relationships between donors and organizations.

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